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LC’s Olustee Festival: Controversy Highlights the Granting of the Festival Permit and its Name

Vanessa George with caption: Not everyone saw "Olustee" in the same light
Vanessa George addresses the City Council.                          (ColumbiaCountyObserver photo)

LAKE CITY, FL – Monday’s evening’s City Council meeting had front-and-center on the City agenda: Permit application from the Blue Grey Army, Inc., to hold the Olustee Battle Festival…on Friday, February 18, through February 19, 2022.

An examination of the supporting information and a letter dated June 2, 2021,  provided by the Blue Gray Army, Inc., shows the Blue Gray Army has dropped the word "battle" from its letterhead, which now reads "Olustee Festival" rather than "Olustee Battle Festival."

City Councilman Eugene Jefferson
City Councilman Eugene Jefferson   (file)

The folks of the Blue Gray Army announced it has canceled this year’s parade, which in the past was described this way: “Grab your own lawn chair or a blanket and claim your spot along the parade route as hundreds of reenactors, cavalry troops, historical floats, horse and buggies and much more march down Marion Avenue.”

The parade featured various public officials dressed up in Confederate officer uniforms.

It is not clear if the “Annual Olustee Parade” is canceled forever.

In the past, Columbia County public schools were closed so that the children could witness all the events of the Olustee Battle Festival.

The “Lake DeSoto Skirmish & Battle of the Ironclads" has also been changed for this year. In 2019, the Olustee Battle Festival & Reenactment media guide explained the skirmish: "The Lake DeSoto Skirmish and Battle of the Ironclads is a sight you will not want to miss? Taking place on the shore of Lake DeSoto, Confederate troops defend the town of Lake City against the incoming Union troops marching toward Lake City."

This year, the Blue Gray Army correspondence explains, "iron-clads will do a little skit and place a wreath in the lake honoring members of the Glue Gray Army who we have lost this year…."

Faye Bowling Warren addresses the Council
Faye Bowling Warren, Executive Director of the Blue Gray Army, addresses the Council.

In Ms. Faye Bowling Warren’s June 2, 2021 letter to then-City Manager Joe Helfenberger, Ms. Bowling Warren wrote: “We want to make sure we have a safe and successful event for the people in our community. We have modified the Olustee Festival upon your recommendations.”

Mr. Helfenberger’s recommendations have not been made public.

As the City Council meeting got underway, the Mayor acknowledged former City Councilman Glenel Bowden's request to move the permit application off the consent agenda.

It was not explained how the permit application ended up on the consent agenda.

Mayor Witt Announces the Permit Application, Opens It For Discussion by the Public

Mayor Witt:  "Next, we have item four Blue-Grey Army, Olustee Festival application."

The Mayor invited Tony Buzzella to the microphone.

Tony Buzzella
Tony Buzzella has been with the Festival for 43 years.

Mr. Buzzella said, "I'm currently the commanding general of the Blue Grey Army. We've been putting on the Festival for 43 years. The Olustee Festival is the oldest, largest, and most successful Festival in Lake City."

He said the Festival brought in over $1 million into the economy of Lake City, adding, “For me, it's not about the money, it's about the Festival.”

Mr. Buzzella added, “What’s important is that we understand that this festival is about education; it's about truth.”

Mr. Buzzella explained that the Festival had brought people into the schools to give speeches of the time, like an Abraham Lincoln reenactor. Mr. Buzzella added, "It's important that the special times that we're in now that we get accurate, correct history, not revisionist history."

He said, "We've never been about race… It's a festival about education… it's a festival for our community, to bring everybody together.… All the unrest that's out there in the country today has nothing to do with this Festival."

Fay Bowling Warren, the Executive Director of the Blue Gray Army, said, "I'm here as the executive director of the Blue Grey Army. I want to thank you for the many years that you've helped us put this event on for Lake City."

Ms. Bowling Warren continued, “I can answer any questions that you have about the festival this year.”

The City Council had no questions.

Glenel Bowden
Glenel Bowden addresses the Council.

Life-long Lake City resident, former City Councilman, and community activist Glenel Bowden addressed the City Council: “I've been here all my life. I understand when the Festival began… There's more to the Festival than just the history of it as some people see it through their eyes. There is a part of the community that sees the Olustee Festival as ‘Olustee Festival.’ They don’t see it as Lake City Festival. When you attach Olustee and the battle with the Festival, it takes on a whole different light in certain parts of the community."

Mr. Bowden said there are members of the community who see the Olustee Festival as "hurt and pain."

Mr. Bowden said, “My hope is going forward, it could be called something else. As long as you call it the Olustee Festival, there is going to be resistance.”

Sylvester Warren
Sylvester Warren wanted the Council to do "something diffferent."

Businessman and Community Activist Sylvester Warren said that the Olustee Festival brings in a lot of revenue for the City. He followed up by saying that the City has not tried another one. He asked, "Why do we always have to associate this Festival with Olustee? Why have we not tried anything different? Why are we stuck in such a rigid and old tradition? I wish that the Council would do something different in the future.”

Shaun Holgren said, “I'm in favor of approving the permit for the Olustee Festival. It's one of the things that first drew me to the area.”

Tina Roberts said, “I am also in favor of the permit for Olustee. I was in it from the start... I would like to see the permit go through without any snags.”

Vanessa George addresses the City CouncilCommunity Activist Vanessa George addressed the Council: “Let’s talk about this Olustee Festival. The Olustee Festival is hurtful to a lot of your citizens. It is a part of history: so is hangin’, lynchin’, tarin’. We got a whole lot of stuff that's a part of our history that we don't want to celebrate. We don't want to celebrate slavery. But every time you do that Olustee Festival – guess what – we are celebrating a battle that the South won to preserve slavery. Let’s not kid ourselves… There’s a lot of people that look like me that’s it hurtful to… For the future, let’s look at something that’s inclusive.”

Ken Bochette
Ken Bochette said Robert E. Lee was a "good guy."

Ken Bochette was granted permission to address the Council: “I want to speak about this audience. These are my people out here… I’m in this thing with em’. I don't see just like each and every one of them… You don’t want to talk about colored. My family talks to me about colored all the time. If we can’t talk about it, how are we going to fix it? The Yankees was killin’ us all. We were protectin’ our homeland. Were we on the right side of that flight? No, probably not… No matter how we feel about it, this Olustee Festival, it brings a lot of money to this town. Tourists love that stuff. They want to believe that General Lee was a good guy. He was a good guy. He could have been our president if he had chose to lead the Union Army."

Tony Buzzella was granted permission to return to the microphone. He said, “We are no longer affiliated with the Battle of Olustee -- the reenactment -- which offends people. Some are offended, some are not, but the Festival is here in Lake City. We used to fund over there, but we decided to pull our horns in and focus on Lake City… We're not celebratin' that there was a civil war, but celebrating that that point in time has been resolved.”

Councilman Sampson made a motion for approval of the application “as presented.”

Councilman Jake Hill
Councilman Jake Hill voted against the Olustee Festival permit.  (file)

Councilman Jefferson seconded the motion.

The Mayor opened the motion for discussion. Mr. Sampson said, "The City's open to doing other festivals… If you don't like this Festival, don't come to this one… I'd like to see us become a destination for more than one event.”

Mayor Witt added, “I would, too.”

Councilman Hill was the lone vote in dissent.


Olustee, the Battle continues.

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